Coronavirus mutations and the evolutionary race for time

The greatest irony of the coronavirus pandemic, in my view, has been that of anti-science political forces who have resisted the most basic mitigation measures facing off against one of the best examples ever of Darwinian evolution and its related math of fecundity being played out in real (and scary-fast) time. And it ain’t over yet, with the exponential spread of the B.1.1.7 virus variant replicating quickly across the U.S.

In one of my first posts about the coronavirus in March of 2020, I was trying to predict just one week out how many cases of this “novel” virus we might see. At the time, only about 15,000 cases of Covid-19 had been reported in the U.S., and President Trump was predicting that it would quickly go away. I posited the two trend lines below, one “worst case” and one “best case” based on the heavy blue line of actual reported cases to date. I have added the actual numbers to my originally-posted graph in green. Within a week, as you can see, there were 82,000 cases. In the year since the number has risen to nearly 30 million cases. That’s some real fecundity right there!

March Coronavirus prediction

My March 19th, 2020, projection.

This was not difficult math, nor a revolutionary prediction. It is simply the basic math of exponential growth when any living organism has the Darwinian characteristic of fecundity, the ability to produce an abundance of offspring unhindered. As we should have learned over the last year (but apparently not in Texas) it is only successful mitigation through interventions like masking, distancing, and now vaccines, that “flattens the curve” and eventually bends it downward.

I live near several Florida ponds where cyclically you will hear an evening dominated by the croaks of many thousands of frogs in mating calls. A single female frog may produce well over 1000 tadpoles at one time, but then the birds and other predators come in and eat most of them before they mature, thankfully moderating greatly the next cycle of croaks. Fecundity and mitigation, nature’s way. The problem with the coronavirus is that “natural” mitigation comes only at the cost of hundreds of thousands of human deaths. We are the baby frogs in this battle.

The unfortunate dilemma posed by Texas and other “premature demaskulator” states is that Darwin’s rules still reign even when you do not believe in them. The coronavirus has evolved, in short order, numerous variants, some of which are more “virulent” than their predecessors. The B.1.1.7 virus variant from Britain has especially exploded in the U.S., as shown by its (again) fast exponential growth, shown in the blue graph on the left. Look familiar?

The rise of the variants appears to be a primary cause of the “plateauing” of cases in the U.S. since mid-February, despite increased vaccinations and the other continued mitigations trying to push down the red curve above. In the right side of that graph, try to project where the red line of overall infections would have been without the blue rise of the B.1.1.7 variant at the bottom.

It is no coincidence that we are not speaking of a “Taiwanese variant” or an “Australian variant” of the coronavirus. These countries have tamped the virus replication rate so far down that variants are extremely unlikely to successfully reproduce in the quantities necessary for long-term dominance. It is basic probability.

What Darwin got correct

Charles Darwin (1809–1882) had not figured out the mechanisms that lay beneath the evolutionary principles he first outlined in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species. Many of his critics yet today make the anachronism error of saying “Darwin was wrong on the details” when the language for these mechanisms themselves took another 100 years to percolate toward the discovery of DNA.

During that same time period, Czech friar Gregor Mendel (1822–1884) was working in a separate silo getting the first hints of that mechanism by breeding his famous pea plants, yet without grasping the larger theory. My favorite terse construction of Darwin’s theory is this:

“Evolution is heritable variation leading to reproductive success.”

In less-terse terms, tiny genetic changes passed on to offspring slightly tweak the odds of an organism’s survival to reproduction age either up or down. The result of that very slight difference in reproductive success over time means that the species changes to better fit into its environment. It is not so much intention as it is simple probabilistic math. Or as I like to say, if your parents had no success in reproducing, then neither will you.

The race against time

Humans are on a different evolutionary time scale from this coronavirus, and most of us are much less fecund, but the math remains the same.

The most unfortunate irony of this pandemic is that the most vocal virus vaccine doubters, those who hold out and escape infection until herd immunity is reached through extensive vaccination, will be convinced in their minds that the entire crisis was overblown. My reminder here is that most drunk drivers get home safely every night, which convinces them only of their invincibility.

While one major strain of American religion continues to attribute the half-million U.S. Covid deaths to “God’s will,” it has become apparent under that same reasoning that God likes the Taiwanese, New Zealanders, Australians and other virus-fighting countries much more than God likes us. A little theology lesson there. Discuss.

A longstanding gulf between religious fundamentalists and scientists has been in their conception of time. Scientists compute geological time on a 4.5 billion age-of-the-Earth timeline, with the first single-celled life appearing some 3.5 billion years ago. Reptiles emerged 200 million years ago, while mammals are on a 65-million-year timeline. Homo sapiens emerged on about a 200,000-year timeline. Many religious fundamentalists continue to cram all of that evolutionary time into a single 10,000-year period, and so the Darwinian math just does not compute for them. Thus, the featured dioramas of humans interacting with dinosaurs at the “Ark Encounter” museum in Kentucky.

Ark under construction

The Ark Encounter under construction with its biblically correct plywood & polyethylene sheeting.

Most the time, evolution happens so slowly that it becomes apparent only to those who accept those longer timelines. But the coronavirus has been evolving in real time through its variants, racing against our mitigations. If we can quickly vaccinate against the current variants, then we greatly reduce the probability of more dangerous variants ahead, or we at least gain some more time to alter our vaccines.

My favorite illustration of real-time evolution is this video of bacteria growing across the face of a plate that is laced with increasing levels of an antibiotic. At each antibiotic boundary, almost all bacteria are stopped, literally dead in their tracks. But a small number of mutations “break through” genetically at each point, and fecundity happens.

Get vaccinated ASAP and keep wearing that mask until the numbers drop to New Zealand’s level!


Notes:

  1. In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, biologist Richard Dawkins identified three traits of living organisms required in order for classic Darwinian evolution to occur. In addition to fecundity, Dawkins cites longevity (the ability to survive a sufficient time to procreate) and fidelity (that the DNA of the organism normally replicates with very few errors).

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